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The Handsome Family / Drunken Prayer (live at the Round Chapel)

The Handsome Family live March 2018The Handsome Family band play in Clapton, a very recently happening neighbourhood of London. The Round Chapel is such a lovely old venue, and this is not my first time here. In fact, all my times here have always been so emotionally charged. The Handsome Family normally charges me, so let’s see if tradition holds.

Pinstripe and denim (Wranglers) plus beards and Stetsons. So far, after rushing here — from the south of France no less — it’s a long wait. Strangely sultry for London too, considering there’s snow predicted for the weekend. I think about ditching my jumper and remember I’ve got dirt from dog antics at the stables on my t-shirt. Maybe that would prove my country authenticity. I laugh.

Finally one man, that most uncomfortable player formula, arrives onstage armed with his guitar and a pedal full of accompaniment. Drunken Prayer, AKA Morgan Greer of Freakwater, gives a vulnerable opening performance. His guitar playing is powerful and confident, laced all up with blues and country sliding. His singing is a warmer-upper, getting better as he gets on with it. I’m always quite into the dynamics of an individual’s vocal performance — how a person goes between such personal exposure to forgetting the audience and letting go.

Drunken Prayer live March 2018

Morgan Greer passes the gates early on and achieves some wonderful Otis Redding and Percy Sledge moments. “Heart To The Grindstone” and “How I Live Matters More Than What I Believe” are stand-out songs and lyrics that are instantly sing-alongable. Once a comfort level is achieved, we all share some assault rifle humour at the expense of the orange baby man. To my personal delight, the Blue Ridge Mountains and my hometown there get coverage, as well as heavy features about New Orleans. Drunken Prayer winds up his set with his Freakwater song “Missionfields” and leaves the audience turned into friends and converts, well warmed-up to receive The Handsome Family.

The Handsome Family live March 2018

Brett and Rennie Sparks are some of the most engaging performers I have ever seen. While their music is so utterly clean and polished, whether delivered live or on a shiny blue record, they are able to perform as if every venue was your own humble parlour. One and all become instantly comfortable.

They banter and bicker; Rennie tells stories while Brett interrupts. Rennie explains what songs mean and Brett distracts her, and they are just so damn charming that it’s hard to believe that they are not actually your own personal friends. Tonight’s show is in honour of the anniversary of the album Through The Trees, released twenty years ago on this very day by Loose Records. So they play that record in full.

The Handsome Family live March 2018

Famously painful, hard times built those songs for The Handsome Family, so it must be a bit gut-wrenching to re-live; nevertheless, in true pro form, every note, word and phrase is perfectly presented. Sometimes I can’t take my eyes off Brett’s mouth — it’s such a weird thing that he can sing so indescribably well. He has a voice that is so big and deep it feels like one’s ears wouldn’t be strong enough to receive it; but at the same time, the physical chest-filled resonance that happens is continually breathtaking.

The Handsome Family live March 2018

Sometimes I can’t stop watching Rennie as she softly swaps between her instruments from autoharp to banjo to guitar, ever smiling, as if all those words were her little babies of which she is justifiably proud and nurturing. Even the accompanying musicians — Alex McMahon on slide guitar and Jason Toth on percussion — watch Rennie and Brett almost with reverence, at once in awe and at one in creating, or recreating, all these songs.

Rennie jokes a lot about pills making it all better. There is definitely a super-blissed atmosphere amongst all of the band. I get the feeling that it’s more the music than the pharmacy creating all the glorious good vibes. The audience as a unit respond with equal happiness. In one particular moment, Brett expresses an awfully romantic moment of love towards Rennie and I think we all might melt away, leaving the couple alone to become a swirl of fine-tuned smoke rising up in the big curves of the ceiling vaults. But Rennie brings us back by dedicating a song to Domino’s Pizza, which she can see from stage through the window opposite.

Honestly, I can’t think of a more charming band. What a privilege it was to return with them through the trees.

-M Wolf Fontenoy-

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